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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Funding Opinion

Challenging the Sacred Status of Special Ed Spending: Voices from the Field

By Rick Hess — November 29, 2010 1 min read
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Got some terrific reactions to last week’s post, which argued (shockingly) that a dollar spent on special education is one we can’t spend on other children--and that policymakers would therefore do well to focus less on “rights” and more on trade-offs. This is doubly true given that the primary challenge for children with special needs today is one of quality rather than access, and that there’s good reason to question whether vast special ed outlays are delivering on that score.

Three takes particularly worth sharing. The first is from a principal who commented on RHSU:

As the principal of a public school, I don't understand why the parents of general education students have not filed a class action lawsuit demanding that their children have equal access to public money. At our school, we spend about twice the money given to us by the government for special education students. That extra 100% comes directly from the general operating funds. For example, when a child enrolled in our school with a need for a one-on-one adult assistant, I had to cancel the after-school tutoring that served about 60 low-income students who were behind grade level in reading and math. Budgets are simple math. You get X dollars. If you have to spend $30,000 per year on an adult assistant for one child you must cut $30,000 from other programs. I get about $8000 to educate one child for an entire year. So this child is using up his money, and the money allotted for 3.5 additional children. When we have the annual meeting to discuss what support an individual special needs child should have, we are forbidden by law to discuss or take into account the cost of the services being discussed. That is crazy. Every other aspect of my budget requires a consideration of costs, but special needs must not be thought of in that framework. I want special education kids to have extra support and services, but I believe that those services should not be funded if they would deprive other children of educational services.

While pandering pols are scared to say it, and while the intimidating special needs lobby will punish those who speak up, parents and teachers are only too aware that these outlays and mandates frequently disappoint. (As one parent of a special needs child wrote, “I’m glad you took [this question] on because the special ed lobby is really scary.”) Consider this story from an accomplished edu-consultant who also happens to be the mom of a child with special needs. She writes:

Rick recently posted on special education and griped that Secretary Duncan's "New Normal" doesn't seem to apply when he is pandering to powerful lobbying groups like those supporting IDEA. But I think both Rick and Secretary Duncan missed a fabulous opportunity to call for scrutiny over special education spending. Let me give an example from my life to illustrate the point. I have attended 19 [Individualized Education Program] meetings in 19 months, each averaging about 2 hours. The school and school district have, on average, 6 attendees from the principal to the classroom teacher and many specialists in between. I estimate that these meetings have cost the district about $14,000, based on my back of the envelope calculation using the 2010 pay scale for the district. As the parent, these meetings have cost me close to $15,000 in lost wages and lawyer and child advocate fees. So, over the past 19 months, the district spent $37,000 on my daughter's education (the district's per pupil expenditure and the cost of IEP meetings), and I've spent at least $26,000 (IEP meetings, private testing and tutoring). I'm sure there are additional costs associated with the testing they did, administrative time to deal with the reams of paperwork, extended school year, etc., but I think I made my point--a lot of money was spent to teach my daughter to read and it didn't work. She can't read and she's miserable about that. The district and I are that much poorer, and at least for my part, I'm spitting mad. How could we have done things differently? For starters, it cost $3,000 to have my daughter tested and her disability properly identified. (The district misidentified her disability and provided inappropriate and completely unhelpful services and accommodations for more than a year.) For $3,500, I hired a private speech language pathologist who improved my daughter's reading skills a whole grade level during intensive tutoring sessions over 3 weeks this past summer. Private schools that specialize in teaching students with learning differences charge between $27,000 and $33,000 in tuition. Having spent time in three such schools, I have no doubt my daughter would be able to read if she had attended any of these school this past year. Unlike many parents, I have the resources to pay private school tuition and starting next year, I will. Having said that, if there was a special education voucher in my state, I would have been out of that school faster than you can say IDEA and saved everyone a lot of money. I believe that parents need more options and that we can find a way to do more with a lot less.

And, finally, Liz Wisniewski responded to Mike Petrilli’s sharp post on special ed spending, writing:

I agree, there is a significant problem with special education spending. How can I not agree? The first school I worked at was devastated when a family with three children who needed $100,000 worth of services moved into town. Two classroom teachers were laid off to hire the required sped teachers, this resulted in all fifth and six graders in the school being adversely impacted. Districts are pummeled when children with severe emotional problems need to be sent to specialized school, since these children cannot safely be included in the regular classroom. Such schools that deal with these students can cost the district $75,000 per student. But a "war" on special education scares me because I worry that [special needs] students...will be nickeled and dimed out of the minimal services they need, during the attack. But you are right, a focused discussion on egregious special education spending is needed. Let's just not [throw the baby] out with the bathwater.

Liz offers a terrific place to start getting serious. Let’s stop groveling before the attorneys or going supine when confronted with a special ed horror story. Instead, let’s talk bluntly about the laws, policies, and practices that can help educators spend limited resources in a way that’s fair to all our kids.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.